When Virginia Toalepai started her safety subcontracting company four years ago in Las Vegas, she was a newly divorced mother of three who had $12 to her name.
Her ex-husband had worked in the business of construction safety. During their 10 years of marriage she learned the role and importance of being a safety inspector.
“I learned the trade from my ex,” says Toalepai, the 34-year-old CEO and president of World Wide Safety which is headquartered in Nevada. “I saw the need and became very passionate about safety. Seeing how it could make a difference in people’s lives, I understood the importance of it in the construction field.”
Although Toalepai says her family encouraged her to go back to school, she decided to take a different route.
“I had $12 to my name when I left,” she says. “I left everything to my ex – our home, everything we had and went out on my own on a leap of faith. With three girls, I went out looking for work. I knew how to do it and I had to do it.”
Toalepai says she earned $500 her first month working and $3,000 her second month, which she used to open World Wide Safety in August 2013. She then joined the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association and started networking.
“It’s a numbers game,” she says. “I knew if I joined an association, I would quickly gain more exposure and more people would want to do business with me.”
At her first association mixer, Toalepai walked over to a table of builders and introduced herself as a subcontractor. After explaining she was a member and what she did as a safety inspector, she booked a meeting with Richmond American Homes, one of the largest home builders in the U.S.. That meeting ended up netting her 21 accounts. She says it was about being in the right place at the right time.
“It was one of those moments when you go into your car and cry,” she says. “I had a car payment and I was two months behind trying to figure out what I was going to do. It was a turning point for me.”
From there she began networking with other subcontractors who worked with Richmond American Homes. She began receiving referrals as a consultant and third party inspector.
Toalepai says she made $200,000 in revenue during her first full year in business, $500,000 in 2015, a million in 2016 and is estimating she will make $1.5 million by the end of 2017 with her company that has now grown to 20 employees.
“One of the hardest things is having faith and that ongoing belief that it can be done,” she says. “It’s not always a smooth ride because there are plenty of ups and downs.”
Here are her six suggestions to other subs.
Work hard. Be passionate.
Toalepai says she still only sleeps about four hours a night because she’s so busy working and caring for her three daughters, Rylee, 14, Shequieta, 12, and O’Chayen, 8, who still see their dad on the weekends.
“One of the biggest things you have to understand, is you have to build a business with passion, you can’t just do it for the money,” she says. “If you really have passion for what you do the ideas are just going to keep coming.”
To keep focused on the job, Toalepai envisions each project as if her family had to live in the building she’s inspecting.
“Safety never sleeps,” she says. “When people cut corners, I know I can’t guarantee that home because I can’t imagine someone knocking on my door, telling my girls something has happened.”
Be proactive and try to anticipate what your business might need in the future.
To help grow her business, Toalepai proactively became a Woman Business Enterprise – also called a WBE. Although it didn’t really matter for two years, having that certification helped Toalepai net two projects with MGM at the end of last year.
“But I had to have the paperwork in order,” she says. “I made sure I understood what I needed to do. After I researched it, I got the certification. I focused on what clients I wanted and learned what I had to do for them.”
Have the last laugh.
As a woman in the construction industry, Toalepai says she is constantly having to prove herself. “If I’m in a crew, a lot of people will address my guys instead of me,” she says. “Then they realize I’m the owner of the company. It’s really sad, but it’s motivation for me. I just look at it as a challenge, and I get the last laugh.”
Her motto: Have a positive attitude and change people one person at a time by sharing your knowledge.
Get involved and never stop networking.
Industry involvement is important. To help grow her business, Toalepai joined five different associations: Associated Builders and Contractors, Nevada Subcontractors Association, National Association of Women Business Owners, National Association of Minority Contractors as well as Southern Nevada Home Builders Association.
“It’s important to attend every networking event you can,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and go even if you don’t think anything is going to come of it.”
Push your comfort zone.
To become more involved in the construction industry, Toalepai also became an authorized Occupational Safety and Health Administration instructor. From conducting job-site safety training to ensuring employees wear the proper gear and reviewing hazardous materials and waste clean-up operations, she makes sure other companies have their paperwork and procedures in compliance with OSHA.
“We inspect all the trades from the ground up to the finished product,” she says.
Even though Toalepai isn’t a lawyer, after going to court as an inspector witness for several OSHA cases, she found herself having to defend a client last year. “It was nerve-wracking,” she says. “Sometimes you have to fake it until you make it.”
To prepare, she envisioned the questions she would want to know if she was a judge deciding the case. Then she anticipated the right questions to ask. “It’s just about proving the case and asking the right questions,” she says.
Volunteer and give back to your community.
Even though she’s extremely busy, Toalepai sits on the board of HomeAid of Southern Nevada which focuses on rebuilding shelters for the homeless in Nevada where contractors and subcontractors donate their time and supplies.
She also created a nonprofit organization, RYSHOC Family – a name created off the first two letters of her children’s names – that offers career training to kids and youth, some who have been in foster care.
“I’m a really big believer in the philosophy that as much is given, that much is received,” she says. “If I take care of other people it will help everyone. I remember how I got to where I am today.”